Monday, April 2, 2012

The Leopard of Rudraprayag

For eight years in the early 20th century, the northen Indian village of Rudraprayag, at the base of the Himalayas, was haunted by a particularly powerful and elusive man-eating leopard. It developed a taste for humans after eating corpses after the 1918 flu outbreak in the area prevented, by sheer volume, the tradition of cremation; once the disease subsided and the animal could no longer find dead bodies, it took to live humans instead. In a period of almost eight years - from its first attack on June 9, 1918 until its last on April 14, 1926 - it officially killed roughly 125 people (though the actual number was probably much higher) in an area not only populated by about 50,000 people, but also on a major pilgrimage route through the mountains. The ensuing panic was reported on from as far away as London.

This leopard, although being past its prime years for hunting, was unusually strong; it carried - not dragged, but lifted and carried - one woman uphill for about 100 yards, and at another time was able to pull its leg free from a steel spring trap at another. It ate a serving of poisoned meat with no apparent effects, and dug its way out of a falling-box trap to escape. It was also amazingly stealthy; when it came upon two men sitting inside smoking a hookah, it quietly killed and dragged away one man when his friend - who was sitting within arm's reach - looked away only long enough to pick something up off of the floor. In addition to both of those, it was skilled and bold, enabling it to escape being trapped on a rope bridge over a ravine while armed riflemen waited on both sides. Another time it was trapped inside a cave where it waited motionless for five days, until intrepid hunters removed the blockade at the cave mouth - the Leopard sprang out, charged into the group of 500 observers, panicked every one of them, and made good its escape. Over the years, it evaded all sorts of methods used to kill it, up to and including snares, firearms, and grenades planted inside its victims; it not only ignored various types of poisons used against it, but according to one village official, it thrived on it.

Many people, both villagers and hunters from distant lands, attempted to catch the Leopard - at one time, an estimate 20,000 villagers, hunters, and soldiers were all trying to collect the 10,000 rupee reward on the beast, to no avail. In 1925, big game hunter and conservationist Jim Corbett, who had been capturing or killing man-eating animals for nearly twenty years, arrived to put an end to the Leopard's menace. He studied the predator's habits, and made several attempts on the animal's life without success; once, another leopard chased it away, and another time the one he shot turned out to not be the culprit. Local superstition interfered as well, with many natives believing the killings to be the work of a were-leopard, even capturing one local holy man with the intentions of lynching him until the Deputy Commissioner of the area intervened.

Corbett's relationship with the Leopard was not strictly one-sided, either; one night, Corbett laid a trap for the beast, but had no luck with it. Finally, he gave up and returned to his bungalow. In the morning, he saw his own footprints in the mud - with leopard tracks set perfectly within each of his own boot impressions. Corbett, tracking back to the source of the prints, realized with a chill that the Leopard of Rudraprayag had followed him every step of the way from where the trap was laid, all the way back to his own front door.

Eventually, Corbett determined that the Leopard frequented a particular stretch of road between Rudraprayag and the neighboring village of Golobrai. He constructed a tree stand in a mango tree, and tied a goat with a bell necklace to a stake near the road within sight. After ten days of sitting in the tree, the leopard finally took the bait; Corbett fired, hit the animal, and in the morning tracked it to where it finally expired. The leopard was measured to be about 7'6" long.

The Leopard of Rudraprayag was not the first, nor the last, man-eating predatory cat from India. Facing a shrinking habitat and scarcer-by-the-day food sources, leopards and tigers resort to eating humans, most often children. The problem does not seem to be abating, neither: one village in the West Bengal area reportedly lost 14 people to tiger attacks in 2010 alone.

Links and Sources:

"Man-Eating Elephants in India?" by Jeremy Hubbard, Natasha Singh, and Lauren Effron, on ABC News, February 16, 2011, retrieved April 2, 2012.

Capstick, Peter, Death in the Silent Places, Macmillan, 1989.

Bright, Michael, Man-Eaters, Macmillan, 2002.

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